Producer George Pal’s Ultra Sci-Fi Efforts Goes Ultra High-Def
Science fiction on film wouldn’t have been the same without uber-producer George Pal. Born and raised in Hungary, Pal created “Puppetoons,” first-gen animation involving replacement technology (a decades earlier precursor to Laika’s efforts in animation). The rise of Nazism in Western Europe led to Pal, like so many other filmmakers, to choose relocation in the United States over remaining in an increasingly tenuous, dangerous, destabilizing Europe. Pal continued producing Puppetoons in Hollywood through the 1940s, justifiably winning an honorary Oscar as a result, before turning to producing and eventually directing a series of science-fiction and fantasy films that redefined an often dismissed or ignored genre on film.
Pal’s best remembered for the 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s seminal science-fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, transplanting the late 19th-century setting of Wells’s novel from England to contemporary America. Influenced at least in part by Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of his namesake’s novel, Pal, director Byron Haskin (The Power, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, The Naked Jungle), and their visual effects collaborators crafted a truly mesmerizing tale of alien invasion. Swapping out Wells’ original conception of the advanced war machines, three-legged, ambulatory vehicles equipped with death rays and piloted by mostly unseen Martians, Pal employed an ingenious alternative: the alien ships, mixing the anatomy of a manta ray and a cobra head, float above the ground via electromagnetic rays.
While meant to be invisible, those “rays” often couldn’t hide the wires suspending the alien war machines as they destroyed huge swaths of countryside and cities alike, but that, like so much of pre-digital effects work, retains much of its charms, highlighting both the craftsmanship involved in creating and filming the startlingly conceived miniatures and the limits of ‘50s-era technology. That audiences then and in subsequent generations could and did suspend their disbelief whenever the wires made an appearance says as much about audience desire as it does about those technological limits.
And with exquisitely memorable sound effects bordering on the terrifying and a more than adequate cast centered on Gene Barry’s science-hero, Dr. Clayton Forrester, and Ann Robinson as Sylvia Van Buren, the president and only member of the Dr. Clayton Forrester Fan Club, along with a who’s who of ‘50s-era character actors, including Les Tremayne as the appropriately named General Mann, fat-free storytelling that borders on the ruthlessly efficient and, at least by today’s standards, risible pretensions to connect Wells’s novel to Christianity and a god that’s both indifferent (allowing the Martians to land and wreak havoc) and when he’s grown bored by the carnage, merciful (the bacteria/germs that prove to be the undoing of the Martians), it’s easy to see why The War of the Worlds, presented here in 4K for the first time, has remained both a genre-best entry and continued to delight, amuse, and frighten audiences for more than seven decades.
While The War of the Worlds was a commercial and critical hit that allowed Pal and his imagination practically free rein over the next decade, but two years before Pal released The War of the Worlds into movie theaters, scarring generations of impressionable children and their parents, he produced two nascent science-fiction films, Destination Space, notable mostly for its then cutting-edge visual effects, The War of the Worlds wouldn’t have received the green light to move forward into production without the box-office success of Pal’s previous science-fiction effort, When Worlds Collide, just two years earlier.
Based on the otherwise forgotten 1933 novel co-written by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, When Worlds Collide essentially created the tropes, traditions, and conventions of the apocalyptic disaster film. Without When Worlds Collide, specifically Pal’s adaptation, Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich might not have found their way to Hollywood and the mega-budgeted disaster genre they remade in their own image over the last twenty-five years. While imagining a scenario without When Worlds Collide borders on pure speculation, there’s no denying its significant influence on both the sub-genre and the filmmakers who’ve subsequently defined and redefined that sub-genre.
From the standpoint of 2022, though, it’s hard not to see where When Worlds Collide stumbles, falls, and ultimately fails. Certainly the visual effects border on the unpersuasive (the production team won an Academy Award for Special Effects), the “science” outlined in the film ludicrous (less excusable, but still worth the benefit of the doubt), but it’s in the conscious or unconscious decision to center the entire film on Americans strictly of the Caucasian persuasion that repeatedly stands out, suggesting that When Worlds Collide exists in a parallel universe where America was founded strictly by and for Europeans and the history familiar to elementary and high school students (e.g., slavery, genocide of Native peoples, the Civil War/Reconstruction, etc.) didn’t, in fact, happen.
It’s just as easy to imagine neither Pal nor his collaborators giving much, if any, thought to the idea that only the best and the whitest were worth saving when the worlds (actually a heretofore unknown rogue star headed for Earth) collide, wiping out humanity and necessitating a risky, dangerous attempt to relocate to a newly arrived planet, Zyra, to the solar system. Add to that the usual religious flavor/fervor and When Worlds Collide all too often feels like the unfortunate product of a casually racist time and place that should remain in the last century and not unburied, given a new suit of clothes, and presented as an objective reflection of permanent, unchangeable reality.
Extras — The War of the Worlds
- Audio Commentary with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson
- Audio Commentary with Joe Dante, Bob Burns, and Bill Warren
- The Sky is Falling: Making The War of the Worlds
- H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction
- The Mercury Theater on the Air Presets: The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast from 1938
- Original Theatrical Trailer
Extras — When Worlds Collide
- Original Theatrical Trailer